Engineering breadboards, a.k.a. duct tape prototypes

This is the second post in my prototyping and manufacturing series.

Which comes first, the breadboard or the vaporware?

I would argue these should arrive simultaneously. Engineering breadboards are the first step for any high tech hardware product development process.  The idea is to use the fastest possible techniques to put together functional prototypes as quickly as you can, to prove out the science and technology behind the product concept.

For a consumer electronics product, it could mean a crude PCB prototype with bare wires soldered on.  If there are mechanical components, you might have fashioned a prototype in the lab using anything at hand – foam, wood, even lego kits. This is why I call these engineering breadboards “duct tape prototypes”. (I sometimes call them “Frankenstein models” as well).

Here is an example of a few “duct tape prototypes” from SensAble Technologies, which created haptic devices (providing a sense of touch to an organic CAD software application the company also produced).  We were playing with kinematics and we decided to build a few models out of a Kinex kit just to get a sense of how the workspace plays out. Eventually we did build a functional prototype – we hacked it together by taking apart an existing device and machining some parts in the shop to house the new components.  The breadboards helped prove the concept, but looks nothing like the sleek final product.

Duct Tape Prototypes
Duct Tape Prototypes of a haptic device that will eventually become a consumer-grade desktop computer peripheral
Phantom Omni desktop haptic device
Phantom Omni desktop haptic device

Here is another example of a duct tape prototype from Zeemote Inc, which created a hand held wireless gaming device for feature phones. In this case, the ultimate vision was a wireless hand held controller as an auxillary input device for interacting with 2005-era feature phones.  We decided to create a prototype to test the efficacy of two-handed operation and decided to create a wired prototype to save time.  The final product was a wireless device. The findings helped the company pivot away from adding sensors to the back of the phones themselves (very hard to execute due to the need to partner with handset manufacturers in a technology licensing model) to manufacturing their own controller (while still challenging, this allowed the company to control their own go to market schedule).

Zeemote breadboard
Another duct tape prototype of what will eventually become a wireless controller for feature phones


Zeemote - wireless mobile joystick
Zeemote – wireless mobile joystick


Now one could argue that it would save time if the first breadboard isn’t so very far from the final product.  Why not go straight to the final product and start your engineering development phase right away?  Wouldn’t that save a whole cycle of engineering prototyping?  To this question, my only response is, wait till you try it.  The reality is that you don’t know what you don’t know.  Doing a full-on engineering phase takes longer, costs more money, and forces you to solve a completely different set of questions (e.g. form and function, cost reduction, manufacturing techniques) before you have even got the basic technology nailed down. Trust me – if you skip the breadboarding you will end up with a longer elapsed time to market and more cumulative engineering cost.

That’s not to say you can’t do your form brainstorming at the same time you do the breadboarding. In the Zeemote example, we didn’t waste any time in starting to imagine what the product could look like. We sketched and sketched and created a lot of vaporware.  This method is fantastic: it costs nothing, you can keep the playing field wide open, and you can adapt to whatever you learn from the breadboarding phase.

Marker renderings of vaporware
Marker renderings of vaporware

OK, that’s it for now. The next post will be on foamcore and foam.

Leave a Reply